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Give me shelter, San Francisco

Photo by Alyssa Kapnik, www.alyssakapnik.com

A lot of things make San Francisco a unique city -- and one is the sheer number of dogs.  There are more dogs than there are children.  Something like 120,000 canines inhabit this metropolis, and thousands of those dogs are dropped off at local shelters each year.  Lost, abandoned, orphaned or mistreated by former owners.

The pound, the shelter, animal control... Whatever you call it, pop culture America has decided it’s a horrible place.

But just walk inside the San Francisco SPCA and you’ll see a completely different kind of shelter. If you’re adopting a dog in the city, chances are you’ll end up here. Krista Maloney, the SPCA’s Media Associate, says, "kind of think[s] of it as a walk-in closet with a panel of glass on the front."

Not only is the SPCA not a typical animal shelter, it may be nicer than my apartment. The building has lofted ceilings and tall windows.

"We have what we call 'condos,'” says Maloney, "instead of the typical cages that you’ll find in a lot of shelters."

The condos vary in size, but they’re mostly about 10 by 15 feet. Each dog has its own little cot, blankets, toys, and a roommate -- The shelter puts them together for company, when possible. 

"This is one of our favorite condos here on the end," says Maloney. "As you can see the sunlight comes directly in… he looks pretty happy there."

SPCA stands for “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals." Its mission is to take the dogs that need the most help. The dogs who’ve not only been abandoned, but who are also sick, or anxious. Dogs with only three legs, or only one eye, or a paralyzing fear of strangers. Dogs like Basil.

"Well hello Basil!" Called Brown when she saw Basil.

Basil is a Miniature Pinscher, a small black dog with brown eyebrows. He’s overweight and oddly proportioned with a tiny little face.  Donna Brown lives in the Western Addition neighborhood of SF, and she’s looking to adopt Basil.

"I promised my grandson a dog, and I told him it would be in February some time.  So.  I like to keep my promise. And I’m medically ummmm… medically I’m… no longer working right now. So, sometimes I get lonely. I think it would be a good companion."

Brown seems to really like Basil. But before she can take him home, she’s got to listen to the adoption agent, Ashley James, explain just about every detail of dog ownership: from dealing with fleas to poop routines to health insurance plans. 

Brown said to James as she left, "If I have any questions, I definitely will be calling you. Might call you more than you think!"

The SPCA makes it a priority to place dogs with the right owners -- they’d rather take a dog back than consign it to the wrong home.  So before they go, Ashley James tells Brown that if she ends up changing her mind about Basil, she can always return him  -- no questions asked.

Brown and Basil walk out the door and she says to the dog, "Did you say bye everybody?  Huh?  Did you say bye?"

And with that, the two leave together, to start their new life.

Dogs that end up at the SPCA have a good shot at finding new homes. The agency adopts out about 2,000 dogs each year; most are at the shelter for just a few weeks. That success rate is partly due to the fact that the SPCA receives about $25 million in donations each year -- they have a lot of resources to devote to their dogs.

To be part of that success, though, the dogs have to get into the SPCA -- and that part’s more complicated.  See, unless you got it from them in the first place, you actually can’t bring your unwanted dog to the SPCA. Instead you have to go across the street, to Animal Care and Control -- the ACC.

"So we’ll start with a tour here on the second floor.  Come through here," says ACC spokesperson, Deb Campbell.

When I arrive, ACC spokesperson Deb Campbell leads me down a dimly-lit hallway. If the SPCA is the Hotel Ritz, ACC is a Motel 6. It’s A boxy cement building filled with cages... Slightly run down, fluorescent lights.

She says, "This used to be a supply building. Everything’s a little antiquated, and it’s not set up as a shelter should be, but we do the best with what we’ve got."

It’s not surprising to find such stark differences between ACC and the SPCA. Remember that 25 million-dollars-a-year the SPCA gets in private donations?  ACC’s a government agency, and runs on just a fraction of that -- just over four million dollars a year.

"With staff salaries and benefits," Campbell says, "it doesn’t leave a lot for animal care."

Over the past few years, that $4 million has had to go further, as more and more animals come to ACC’s doors.  Campbell says there’s been a definite increase in drop-offs since the 2008 financial crisis, and the recession.

"It’s heartbreaking when you know someone wants to keep their animal, but just doesn’t have the means to do it," remarks Campbell.

And she’s not just talking about dogs.

Kristin Hall, long-time volunteer and photography coordinator, says, "Right now we have fish, rabbits, chickens, Guinea pigs, hamsters, dogs, cats, goats.  There was a tortoise here last week.  We have an obligation to take any animal that comes through the door, no matter what kind of animal it is, and what condition it's in."

She’s not kidding -- they even take wounded pigeons and lost ducklings. Overall, ACC takes in 10,000 animals a year of all kinds.  And Hall says they’re unique in that they don’t put animals down unless they’re violent or untreatably ill.

"We don't have a time-frame," says Hall. "As long as they're adoptable, can stay here forever.  Our longest-term resident is Harry the Rabbit.  He's been here since July of 2011."

Harry the Rabbit, by the way, is quite a handsome guy.  He’s tucked away here, in the Small Animals room, with the wild birds, the chickens, the hamsters, and other rabbits.

He’s pretty quiet.  But he seems like he’s doing alright.

ACC works with a network of other shelters around the Bay Area to try to get animals into better situations.  The SPCA gets a lot of its dogs here - they cross the street regularly to take the most difficult-to-place animals, rehabilitate them and adopt them out.  There are also more specialized shelters.

Hall says, "Muttville for senior dogs.  Rocketdog Rescue... Give Me Shelter, 10th Life, Feral Fix.  Sonoma Reptile Rescue, Peninsula Humane Society, PHS.  There's a lot of other rescue groups."

But in the meantime, those pets wait here.  And they don’t live in condos.  The dogs, for example, usually only get one or two walks a day. Unless there’s a special circumstance, like an off-site adoption event, the dogs spend about 23 hours a day in their cages. It’s all the agency’s able to do.  Which isn’t to say the staff doesn’t care about the animals. 

Hall takes me to meet one of her current favorite dogs, a Dachshund mix with silky black fur named Baptiste. He looks like he’s smiling from ear to ear, and his whole body wiggles when he wags his tail.

Hall says, "Hi buddy.  Who's a good boy?  Hi handsome. Hi baby.  Thanks for the loving!  Nice to see you too!"

Baptiste has already been here for a few weeks, but Hall seems hopeful he’ll find a family.  Just like at the SPCA, the idea that these dogs go to the “right” home is almost a superstition among ACC staff. 

"We had this one day," she says, "there was a dog that was supposed to go on a field trip.  Event.  And he was just a really nice easy-going dog.  And the day of the event, they were getting him ready, putting his harness on, getting him ready to take him to the event, and he got really agitated in a way that he didn't normally behave. So they decided not to take him on the event, and right after that, a family came in that had come specifically for him. I'm gonna cry.  He wouldn't have been here!  So it's like he knew.  He was like, "No!  My people are coming! Really nice when stuff like that happens."

Hall says San Francisco is a good city for dogs for a lot of the same reasons it’s a good city for people.

"San Francisco is very different how it treats everybody," says Hall.  "Animals and people.  And the tolerance and the acceptance.  The good will.  It's really strong here."

She says the system here seems to work well, but in an ideal world, there wouldn’t have to be an Animal Control at all.

"Wouldn't that be the greatest thing on earth!" She says.  "If all animals were well-cared for and tended and there weren't strays in the streets, or kittens that were abandoned in garbage cans. That would be awesome.  So yeah.  I would give up my job if that meant, if that's what that meant.  But we're not there yet."

Hall says it’s still a struggle to find some animals good homes.  But San Francisco’s shelter system is not nearly as grim as people imagine. For many of these animals, going to the pound isn’t a punishment or a death sentence - it’s a chance to find a home.

This story originally aired on May 22, 2013. 

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